The New Urban Farmers
Right outside my door, I pick berries for breakfast. At noon, I harvest a simple salad, along with herbs and eggs from the chicken coop that I whip into a frittata. In the golden light of late afternoon, I pluck a veritable cornucopia of vegetables and set them straight onto the grill for a dinner I eat right in the garden, surrounded by softly clucking birds and a dense forest of trees, shrubs, and knee-high plants laden with blooms and fruits.
At least that was my vision when I bought a little Cape Cod fixer-upper in south Minneapolis last year. I’ve started breaking up the concrete that surrounds the house, stripping sod and planting edible perennials. Still, I have a ways to go to turn this place into the lush Garden of Eden-style urban homestead of my dreams.
“Maybe you need to pull out a rib and make a man to do all the work,” my friend Tom, a landscape contractor who has helped me get started, said when he heard me describe my vision. My mother, who grew up on a North Dakota farm and knows all about the labor that goes into growing food, thinks I am rather, shall we say, idealistic. But I’m on a mission. Living in a place where I can grow my own food feels like part of my genetic encoding. My body craves it. And in the long run, it will save me money, which these days seems like a good plan.
“The greatest fine art of the future will be the making of a comfortable living from a small piece of land,” Abraham Lincoln once predicted. I’m hoping to at least supplement my living—with lower grocery and doctor bills—from my small piece of land.
Although I’ve gardened before, I don’t quite have all the skills I need to take things to this level. So I looked around and found there are people all over the Twin Cities who can help remedy the situation, like permaculture designer Dan Halsey of SouthWoods Forest Gardens in Prior Lake who teaches homestead and landscape design, and Krista Leraas and Dina Kountoupes of Harvest Moon Backyard Farmers, who design, plant, tend, and harvest gardens for people who don’t want to or can’t do the work themselves. They also act as gardening coaches for people like me who do.
When Krista and Dina walked around my yard with me, I asked for advice about how to grow as much food as possible on my 1/8-acre lot. As we passed the silver maple that spits seeds and attracts box elder bugs, I said I was thinking about cutting it down.
Dina nodded. “Or,” she said, “you could tap it for maple syrup.”
I considered slapping my own forehead. Right! The maple tree is a food source!
We found good spots for asparagus and garlic, a plum tree and a cherry tree, mint, chives, and daylilies (whose unopened buds are delicious sautéed in a little tamari). And just about everywhere seemed like a good place for berries: elderberries, raspberries, strawberries, currants.
When Krista pointed out a spot at the front of the house where more berries could grow, I felt an I-don’t-want-to-go-and-get-all-excessive panic arise.
“I don’t want to get too berry-heavy,” I said.
Krista turned and looked at me square in the eyes. “You don’t?” she asked. “You have a freezer don’t you?”
Now I felt silly. I remembered a winter weekend I spent on a farm in North Dakota, home to one couple and five deep freezers. Except for wine and a little oil, everything we ate for three days—and the food was mouth-wateringly good—had been grown and raised on the farm, most of it right in the family garden. Oh, the garlic and potatoes; the kale and blackberries!
“Yes!” I said, finally beginning to grasp the whole point of what I was trying to do. “I do! I do want to get berry-heavy!”
THE GROWER CHEF
Nick Schneider spent years cooking at Cafe Brenda. Now he shares his love of cooking and growing food all over the Twin Cities.
“I really never saw myself becoming a chef. But I’m someone who loves to work with my senses and I fell in love with cooking. I apprenticed in an Italian restaurant, where I saw things I’d never seen before: fresh tarragon, fresh sage, and fresh beets—nothing out of the can. I started growing a couple years after that and it snowballed really fast. It became an addictive habit. My garden helps me cope with my cooking addiction and vice versa. They are almost inseparable activities.”
In the last few years, I’ve spent time on farms and I’ve grown food in gardens, but I thought I ought to see how an urban homestead actually worked before I started digging. So, I visited Aimee and Jeremy McAdams, who have an old-school homestead near Powderhorn Park in south Minneapolis.
When the economy interrupted their careers in library science and architecture, the McAdams decided to put some of their do-it-yourself interests to work. Jeremy started growing and selling mushrooms. Aimee began sewing. Together, they dug up, reshaped, and planted their yard with as many edibles as possible. They have strawberries, celeriac, and basil. They have two scrappy cherry trees that produced 18 pounds of fruit last year. The tomatoes did well, too.
“I think it’s the rabbit poop,” says Aimee, referring to manure they found for free through a local listserv. The chicken poop—from the hens that lay delicious eggs in their stylish coop—doesn’t hurt either.
Aimee and Jeremy make urban homesteading look rather idyllic, just as I’d hoped. But I had to ask: “Isn’t homesteading hard?”
Jeremy, in his quiet, reflective way, thought for a while. “We only do things that are easy,” he said.
I didn’t believe him. “But you’ve tried difficult things, right? You’ve had some disasters?”
He had told me earlier that while they didn’t have their own cows or goats, they did buy farmer’s milk to make cheese (self-sufficiency is an urban homesteading myth—you become more connected to others when you’re building a resilient ecosystem rather than less). Certainly, I thought, making cheese was hard. “Wasn’t it hard?”
“We made microwavable mozzarella,” he said. “It was easy.”
Curried cucumber pickles are easy, too, and Aimee and Jeremy make them every year. But the canned cauliflower experiment? “Easy, but I didn’t care for it,” said Jeremy. “So I didn’t do it again.”
Easy and tasty are matters of perspective, I realized.
Aimee, creator of the Adventures in Urban Homesteading blog, agreed. “The first year we had chickens, we had to spend a lot of time figuring it out. Then they just became part of how we live.”
Sometimes, Aimee says, she feels like a homesteading fraud. “Our life feels so normal and natural. But then neighbors come by and say, ‘Hey, milking the cows?’ And I realize we’re doing something different.”
Different can be good, but in Minnesota, we don’t want things to be too different. So I called on Audrey Matson to ask her for the best advice on making urban homesteading work for me and my neighbors. Matson grew up on a dairy farm in Finlayson, where her family grew vegetables and did a lot of canning. She always thought she’d move back to the country one day. But when she realized that St. Paul was home now, she started her own homestead in the city. Then, she opened EggPlant Urban Farm Supply, a St. Paul store that sells tools, edible plants, a lot of chicken feed, and supplies for canning, fermenting, dehydrating, and cheese making.
“Aesthetics really come into play in the city, so put some design into the garden, combining ornamental plants with food plants,” she said. “Most important, learn to cook. Part of what goes along with growing food is cooking food, because you end up buying less prepared food.”
I’ll limit my rant here, but I do have to say this: the way we’ve been eating in this country doesn’t compute. We use gasoline to drive to oil-heated stores to buy food grown with oil-based fertilizer that’s been shipped on average 1,500 miles to get here in gasoline-powered trucks. That, to me, isn’t very secure, safe, or even sensible.
Why, I’ve often wondered, don’t we turn our urban and suburban lawns back into orchards and gardens, like my dad’s parents used to have on their little hobby farm in Hopkins? When I was 10, I picked apples at their place, bagged them up, put them in my little red wagon, and sold them to neighbors for $1 per dozen. The rest was made into apple pies and apple crisp, apple sauce and apple butter that tasted so good in winter.
Before Hopkins, my grandparents lived near Lake Nokomis in Minneapolis. There, my dad built a trailer he could attach to his bicycle to haul his canoe down to the lake. He also remembers hauling water, in a car, to their garden plot at a nearby Victory Garden. During World War II, 20 million Americans helped plant such gardens. They grew about 40 percent of this country’s produce supply.
There are only two remaining Victory Gardens that have been used continuously until today: the Fenway Victory Gardens in Boston and the Dowling Community Garden in Minneapolis. When I first started walking through that garden years ago, I had no real interest in growing flowers, let alone food. But one day I was overcome by a profusion of color and scent, the bees buzzing, the 10-foot-tall sunflowers soaring overhead. The experience was pretty darn spiritual. And it made me think: if people can create this kind of bounty right here, someday I might be able to do it too, right outside my door.
The owner: Danny Schwartzman, Common Roots Café
The garden: Behind the café in two backyards
When Danny Schwartzman opened Common Roots Café in 2007, he wanted to have a café garden tied to it—not to replace produce from local farmers, but to help city dwellers connect the food they’re eating with the people who grow it and the effort that goes into it. In 2009, Schwartzman bought the two houses directly behind the café, remodeled them into duplexes, ripped out their asphalt parking spaces, brought in good dirt, and planted the garden. A bevy of staff, volunteers, and kids now plant, tend, and harvest it. Schwartzman tells us about the garden, whose produce is served in the café:
Pounds harvested: “Both of the first two years we harvested 1,500 to 1,600 pounds. The third year it was less because we focused on herbs and greens that don’t weigh as much.”
Unexpected benefit: “In the garden, you see all the parts of the plants you can use but people generally don’t use. It’s good for the creativity of the kitchen and staff.”
Favorite garden-grown dish: “Bruschetta with tomatoes, peppers, garlic, and sorrel.”
Most surprising thing: “When I’m out pulling weeds, all different kinds of people—across all demographics and socioeconomics—enjoy walking by the garden and looking at it. Most of them smile. A lot of people in the city haven’t grown food and can’t identify things in the garden, and they have a strong desire to get that knowledge back.”
Weirdest event: “We have lots of compost—it’s good stuff—and we found an earthworm longer and larger than anyone had ever seen before: about 18 inches long and 1/3 inch thick. It was crazy.”
The Farm Next Door
A stroll through a farmers’ market is one of the most pleasing weekend summer rituals in the Twin Cities. One of my favorites is the St. Paul Farmers’ Market, now over 150 years old, where everything sold is produced within a 50-mile radius. That means fresh food. Super fresh. But city dwellers don’t have to go to the market to get such produce. Farmers deliver to local co-ops, and, for years, dozens of farmers have come to town each week to deliver baskets of just-picked goodness to their CSA (community-supported agriculture) members. Now, there’s another change afoot. Urban farmers are bringing the farm itself back to the city. Some people think that sounds idyllic. Others cringe.
“When people think of farms, they think of smelly, polluted, industrial farms,” says Eric Larsen of Stone’s Throw Urban Farm, a group of young farmers converting abandoned city lots into aesthetically pleasing micro-farms and selling their produce as CSA shares and at the Mill City Farmers’ Market. “Instead, we’re working toward what urban agriculture used to be 60 years ago.” That’s about when city planners zoned farms, which were integrated into the urban fabric, out of town. Now planners are figuring out how to zone them back in again—in Minneapolis, St. Paul, and elsewhere. In the meantime, urban farmers—whose numbers are growing—have had to be crafty. And sometimes downright ingenious.
With zoning in transition, and good farmland not exactly easy to find, Stefan Meyer and Mike Pursell of Growing Lots Urban Farm made their own farmland. On a few abandoned lots in the Seward neighborhood, they spread plastic out on top of asphalt, hauled in tons of soil, and planted things like pineapple ground cherries, yard long beans, and purple Brussels sprouts—plants without deep roots. The farm has had to move a few times, but for the next several years, thanks to a stable lease from Seward Redesign, Growing Lots can settle in. In addition to vegetable beds, the farm will compost, have a rainwater catchment, a tiered pond system, and mushrooms. People who buy CSA shares can visit the farm, just a short walk from the Franklin Avenue light-rail stop, to get their food.
A West Seventh Street community in St. Paul has a neighborhood-grown CSA, too. With a grant from the USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program, Xe Susane Moua—a former California farmer—knocked on her neighbors’ doors and asked if she could grow food in their backyards, launching City Backyard Farming.
Jeremy McAdams started Cherry Tree House Mushrooms in his Minneapolis backyard, but complicated zoning issues made him move his farm out to Grow! Twin Cities, a model urban farm that aims to be a multicultural growers’ cooperative on Rice Street in Maplewood. There, on carefully stacked logs under a black-mesh tarp, McAdams grows oyster mushrooms and shiitakes, which he sells primarily to restaurants. The location is working out, but this ecologically-minded farmer doesn’t like the drive. “I’d rather farm closer to home,” McAdams says.
People are farming wherever they can. Residents of Minneapolis’s McKinley neighborhood have created a series of pocket farms on vacant lots for the McKinley Community CSA. Karla Pankow and Elizabeth Millard used social media to find volunteers to prepare the ground for Bossy Acres, their urban/rural hybrid farm in Minneapolis and Dayton.
In an effort to bring healthier food to Little Earth of the United Tribes, a housing community owned and populated by Native Americans in the Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis, its Women’s Empowerment Group decided to start an urban farm. They got help from Minnesota’s Women’s Environmental Institute, an outreach training center for Milwaukee-based Growing Power—the soil-building, farm-growing brainchild of former NBA star and MacArthur genius Will Allen. His mission: bring fresh food and entrepreneurial, community spirit to food deserts like Phillips.
Then there are the cooperatives. Among others, there’s My Farm African Farmers Cooperative in Brooklyn Center, Hmong Farmers Cooperative, and Cooperative of Latin American Growers. Collie Graddick, an agricultural consultant with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, is one partner in Community Table, an organization that supports such cooperatives. Community Table is currently developing a food label so buyers know their purchases support a local food system. “We’re working to get cooperatively grown produce in corner stores,” he says.
The combination of all these efforts excites Courtney Tchida, student-program coordinator for the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture at the University of Minnesota. “The more food we can grow in the city, the less dependent we are on food from California,” she says. This year, Tchida is one of several teachers training 25 new urban farmers in the Urban Farming Certification program offered through Permaculture Research Institute Cold Climate.
Young people in the cities are being trained as farmers, too. Michael Chaney heads Project Sweetie Pie, an urban-farm movement that gives youth in north Minneapolis access to healthy food and promotes economic opportunity in the food-distribution system. When Youth Farm & Market Project first started, it had a weekend farm-stand model. Today, in Minneapolis’s Lyndale, Powderhorn, and Hawthorne neighborhoods, and in St. Paul’s Frogtown and West Side, kids in this youth-development organization interview their neighbors to find out what kind of produce they want, then plant and tend the garden. Later, they deliver the harvest—in one neighborhood via bicycle, in another at a stand in the Midtown Global Market. Not only does the organization help develop leadership skills, it helps kids learn to eat better through its new emphasis on cooking. “It’s that tactile experience on the farm or in the kitchen—not just the food on the plate—that makes the difference,” says Gunnar Liden, Youth Farm & Market’s executive director.
With all these new farmers and healthy eaters, and now that nearly everyone in the Twin Cities will soon be able to walk or bike to a little farm for such a tactile, sensory experience—not just to the weekend market—the Twin Cities seems poised for a fresh-grown food revolution.
THE INCREDIBLE EDIBLE TWIN CITIES
Paula Westmoreland is the owner of Ecological Gardens, director of the Permaculture Research Institute Cold Climate, and author of This Perennial Land. Here’s her take on why a Twin Cities metro area full of farms and gardens would improve city dwellers’ lives.
1. More Beautiful.
“The Twin Cities are gorgeous already. Imagine them with edible flowers, rooftop farms, freeway orchards, greenhouses, and gardens in vacant lots.”
“Locally produced food creates opportunities for new businesses: canning, freezing, pickling, saving seeds, growing plants. There would be jobs for neighborhood farmers, beekeepers, butchers, smokers, composters, and nurseries.”
3. Less Lonely.
“When people are outside working, they’re talking with their neighbors. There could be community cookouts and cook-offs. Young people raised on homegrown fruits and vegetables would be out in biking brigades, moving compostable material and delivering food.”
“Our lush, natural environment would have more bees, birds, and butterflies; healthier soil; and less runoff into lakes and streams. People—eating more vibrant nutrients—would also be more connected to the natural rhythms of the seasons and other species.”
Karen Olson is the former editor of the Utne Reader. She lives in Minneapolis.